The Poetry of Citizenry

by Bob Schwartz

“You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art

“There is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry.”
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary

“Poetry, an act of the imagination, is subject to historical forces, but it also talks back to history. The idea of witnessing should be widened to go beyond the documentary response to events. ‘I am the man . . . I suffered . . . I was there,’ Walt Whitman declared. A broad imaginative sympathy was part of his lived experience.”
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary

I’ve written before about poetry as insurgent art, a term used by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Here I add to the conversation with three entries from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch—an essential book for those who read write study or teach poetry.

It is no surprise to regular readers that I think these are extraordinary times. And that I think people in all quarters should consider the ways they can help right the ship and steer it in a different direction. That is, all hands on deck, including poets.

How well that works, or whether it works at all, is to be determined. But as the student Sophie Scholl said of her tiny but morally mighty White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, which boldly distributed simple leaflets, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.” As well poets as anyone else.


From A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch:

political poetry

Poetry of social concern and conscience, politically engaged poetry. The feeling often runs high in the social poetry of engagement, especially when it is partisan. Poets write on both sides of any given war, defend the State, attack it. All patriotic and nationalistic poetry is by definition political. Political poetry, ancient and modern, good and bad, frequently responds vehemently to social injustice. Thus the poet is Jeremiah crying out to the assembly to witness the folly, unprecedented in both West (Cyprus) and East (Kedar), of a people who have forsaken the fountain of living waters for the stagnant water at the bottom of a leaky cistern. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of poems mourning the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people after the siege and destruction of the city and the burning of theTemple by the Babylonians, is also a political poem.

Strabo came up with the label stasiotika (“stasis-poems”) for Alcaeus’s partisan songs, political poems, which are propagandistic poems of civil war and exile, accounts of his political commitments. The premise of political poetry is that poetry carries “news” or information crucial to the populace. Political poetry is a poetry self-consciously written inside of history, of politics. It responds to external events. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W. H. Auden famously decreed in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, and so, too, we might say that the madness of any country’s brutality has often wounded its poets into a political response in poetry. “I stand as a witness to the common lot, / survivor of that time, that place,” Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1961. Behind the poem in quest of justice, these lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623): “our size of sorrow, / Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great / As that which makes it.”

There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory. For the best political poems of the twentieth century, I think of Vahan Tekeyan’s poems of the Armenian genocide; of the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez’s haunting prison poems, especially “Lullaby of the Onion” (1939); and the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s equally poignant prison poems, especially “On Living” (1948) and “Some Advice to Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison” (1949); of Bertolt Brecht’s World War II poems and Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust poems. I think of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese’s testimonies to ordinary people in trouble, Hard Labor (Lavorare stanca, 1936), and Pablo Neruda’s epic testament, Canto General (1950). I think of the many poems of indictment and summons, of land and liberty, collected in the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka’s breakthrough anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975).

There is a strong tradition in England of political poems. Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591) takes aim at social and political targets. John Milton wrote a series of pro-Cromwellian short poems in the 1640s and ’50s. Some of John Dryden’s greatest poetry was written in response to events, such as his two-part political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682). William Wordsworth’s political poems are among his best, such as his sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1803), though a few of his late patriotic poems are also among his worst. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy (1819), which was “Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” (“I met Murder on the way—/ He had a mask like Castlereagh”), is a frankly political poem that always gives me a chill. Elizabeth Barrett Browning published two striking books of political poetry during her Italian sojourn, Casa Guidi Windows (1850) and Poems Before Congress (1860). The most popular Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennsyon, never distinguished between the personal and the political, the private and the public.

Political poetry has always seemed somewhat suspect in American literary history. “Our wise men and wise institutions assure us that national political events are beyond the reach of ordinary, or even extraordinary, literary sensitivity,” Robert Bly writes. Yet there is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry. This runs from Walt Whitman’s political poems of the 1850s, which prefigure Leaves of Grass, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Anti-Slavery Poems (1832–1887), to leftist poets of the 1930s (Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, Muriel Rukeyser). The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War enraged poets, and, as Bly points out, some of the most inward poets, such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell, wrote some of the best poems against the Vietnam War. Most poetry of the 1940s and ’50s shunned politics, but Thomas McGrath (“Ode for the American Dead in Korea,” retitled in the early 1970s “Ode for the American Dead in Asia”) and Kenneth Rexroth (“A Christmas Note for Geraldine Udell,” 1949) bucked the trend. For forty years, Adrienne Rich was one of the most outspoken political poets in late twentieth-century American poetry, a model for a generation of political and activist poets. She went through several phases in relationship to polemics. She proposed a position that resists didacticism in “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman” (1978), her introduction to a collection of poems by Judy Grahn:

No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.

protest poetry 

Poetry of dissent, of social criticism. It protests the status quo and tries to undermine established values and ideals. The protest poet is a rebellious citizen, speaking out, expressing disapproval of a political policy or social action. Protest poetry, the most earnest of genres, is timely, oppositional, reactive, urgent. It is an activist type of political poetry born from outrage and linked to social action. It turns poetry into a medium for polemics.

The reprehensible policy of apartheid in South Africa, which legislated racism, also stimulated a powerful tradition of protest poetry. The Zulu poet Herbert I. E. Dhlomo’s long poem Valley of a Thousand Hills (1941) is the most extended work of South African protest poetry. One thinks of the contributions of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009), whose work is brought together in Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (2006); Arthur Nortje (1942–1970), whose work is published posthumously in Dead Roots (1973) and Lonely Against the Light (1973); and Mazisi Kunene (1930–2006), who first sounded his aggressive, telegraphic note in Zulu Poems (1970). The New Black poetry of the 1970s, or Soweto poetry, was a protest poetry of black consciousness. In the United States, there is also a strong tradition of African American poetry that protests racism. It extends from the Harlem renaissance to the Black Arts movement. Most antiwar poetry is protest poetry. The combatant antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) protested the technological horrors of modern warfare. The Spanish Civil War generated both local and global protest poetry. The Vietnam War galvanized a tremendous amount of protest poetry by such poets as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Bly. These poets felt a cultural imperative to speak out against the war. The repression and disintegration of the American imagination is one of the persistent themes of Vietnam-era protest poetry. Much of the feminist poetry of the 1960s and ’70s is protest poetry. “A patriot is not a weapon,” Adrienne Rich writes in her long poem An Atlas of the Difficult World (1981). “A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being.” Sam Hamill’s anthology Poets Against the War (2003) was a hastily gathered book of protest poems against the war in Iraq. The strength of protest poetry is its sense of immediacy and outrage. However, most of these politically motivated poems, which are often made in outrage against a specific atrocity, don’t outlive their historical moment.

witness of poetry, poetry of witness 

Poetry of testimony. In the early 1990s, Carolyn Forché transformed the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s phrase the witness of poetry (taken from the book of the same name, 1983) into “the poetry of witness.” Her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) gathers together the work of 145 poets “who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political censorship, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assignation. Many poets did not survive, but their works remain with us as poetic witness to the dark times in which they lived.” Poetry, an act of the imagination, is subject to historical forces, but it also talks back to history. The idea of witnessing should be widened to go beyond the documentary response to events. “I am the man . . . I suffered . . . I was there,” Walt Whitman declared. A broad imaginative sympathy was part of his lived experience.

In 1944, the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti wrote four harrowing “Postcard” poems in the midst of a forced march westward across Hungary. Radnóti was one of twenty-two prisoners murdered and tossed into a collective grave. After the war, his widow had his body exhumed and these poems were found in his field jacket, written in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. Thus his poems nearly literally rise up from a mass grave. They inscribe a suffering unimaginably intense, a consciousness of death nearly unbearable. They are purposefully entitled “Postcards.” Here the informality of the postcard (dashed off, superficial) is belied by the scrupulousness with which Radnóti describes and re-creates the scene of his impending death. The postcard is a message directed to another person. It has a particular reader in mind, but its openness also suggests that it can be read by anyone. Thus the poem in the guise of a postcard is a testimony back to life, a signal that Radnóti had pushed back the silence long enough to embody a final experience. His poems of witness display the classical brevity and poise of an Orphic art that comes back from the underworld to give testimony.

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